Under my byline

Kabir says

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 26 September 2009

Kabir, trans. Vinay Dharwadker


So the SMSes have started again: 2/3/4 bedroom apartments 10 minutes from here or there, from this or that reputed builder, booking amount 10 per cent, call this number. Last chance, don’t miss. Also the full-page ads: nondescript apartment towers rooted in a Middle Eastern abundance of palm trees and waterways, all surrounded by improbable oceans of virgin green. And on the TV: ads for the flat-screen TV that will turn your house into a home.

Clearly the economic downturn is fading and sunny aspiration is breaking out again. Speaking of heat, most heinous of all: the TV ad in which a mint-chewing hipster breathes icy air over penguins and polar bears in a hot subcontinental zoo, cruelly giving them the momentary illusion that they are home and free in their native lands (bizarrely, the ad just won an award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for showing that zoos are bad). Those animals were reminded of their captivity; we human animals keep forgetting ours.

It’s all maya, after all, and never more so than when the good times loom. What better time, then, to seek out Kabir, the foremost poet of maya — indeed, one of the foremost poets of all time. I read a selection of his verse in the fine English translation of Vinay Dharwadker, in Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs (Penguin, 2003). In childhood I memorised a few Kabir refrains and dohas because we sang them in school; then they were just mellifluous in the half-understood antique Hindi. Now, as an adult, I am stunned at the power of Kabir’s words. He’s so hard-hitting that one almost dares not read his words, let alone read them aloud. Even holding the book raises my sense of responsibility.

We know
what Maya is
— a great robber and thief,
a con-woman in cahoots with con-men.

Ouch! And if one thinks oneself safe as, at worst, a minor accomplice in this circle of subterfuge, Kabir will not hesitate to make a personal attack:

Brother, why do you strut about,
so full of yourself?
……..How come you’ve forgotten
those ten months
when you were suspended
upside down
……..inside the womb?

Which is a striking and yet subtle way to remind one of one’s unimportance and unfreedom. One is captive to one’s appetites no less than to one’s mind — both are complexities that get in the way of the simple truth that Kabir, the uneducated weaver, tells us we keep turning away from. Organised anything, including religion, is misleading, and Kabir is contemptuous of its claims:

……..The brahmin fasts
once a fortnight,
the qazi fasts for Ramadan.
Each devotes
eleven months to himself,
then looks for rewards
……..in a month of fasts.

Eid is just over, Diwali and Christmas are on their way. It’s only natural, Kabir might say, that this holy season is also the season of shopping, because this is when maya is at its height. In his life, although we know precious little about it, Kabir may have been hounded out of his beloved Banaras for his business-unfriendly ideas. In the modern world, it seems to me, the illusion is so pervasive that it’s getting harder and harder to see around the edges. It’s more true than ever, what Kabir says:

When I tell the truth,
people run
to beat me up
— when I tell lies,
they believe me.

(Here are a few more literary translations by Professor Dharwadker.)


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